John Lynch's Continued Aggressiveness in Free Agency Could Doom 49ers

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystMarch 12, 2019

FILE - In this April 23, 2018, file photo, San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch speaks to reporters at the team's football facility in Santa Clara, Calif. Lynch felt like he had filled a hole at middle linebacker when he drafted Reuben Foster in the first round a year ago.  Now with Foster facing legal trouble and possible league punishment following three felony charges in a domestic violence case, Lynch heads into this year's draft knowing he can't count on Foster to play this season.  (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch doesn't know what he's doing.

How can anyone come to a different conclusion after the organization decided Monday to make Kwon Alexander the NFL's highest-paid off-the-ball linebacker? The 49ers followed that move by adding to a position of strength when Lynch agreed to a trade a 2020 second-round draft pick to the Kansas City Chiefs for Dee Ford, according to The MMQB's Albert Breer

Legitimate concerns exist about these moves and harken to much larger issues regarding talent evaluation, salary-cap allocation and an overall lack of direction. 

Alexander agreed to a four-year, $54 million contract at the onset of the NFL's legal tampering period, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. At $13.5 million annually, Alexander eclipsed Luke Kuechly's deal by more than a million dollars per year. The $27 million guaranteed matched the five-time first-team All-Pro's pact. 

No one believes Alexander is the same caliber of player as Kuechly, but two things must be taken into consideration.

An expanding salary cap with a combined $1 billion available to spend between the 32 teams helped reset the market at multiple positions. After all, a player's worth is what the market dictates. However, Alexander benefited from a weak free-agent class and a team banking on his long-term potential. 

NASHVILLE, TN - AUGUST 18:  Kwon Alexander #58 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers plays during a pre-season game against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium on August 18, 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)
Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

A contract isn't supposed to be based on what a player previously accomplished; it's meant to pay for what he can still provide. Alexander, whom the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted in the fourth round of the 2015 NFL draft, is only 24 years old. 

An investment in a young and talented player on his second contract is usually a smart move. Alexander averaged 111 tackles over his first three seasons. His age and production would portend a potential franchise cornerstone if only those two factors were taken under consideration. They shouldn't be, though. 

Alexander is an inconsistent, average defender coming off a major injury. He's not trending in the right direction to warrant an exorbitant contract. Yet, the 49ers are supposed to build their defense around him. 

The aforementioned tackle numbers are impressive. They're far less impressive when Alexander's missed tackles are added to the mix, as Pro Football Focus' Sam Monson noted: 

Sam Monson @PFF_Sam

Since 2011, only 9 players in the NFL have over 50 missed tackles. Kwon Alexander has 78!

The 227-pound linebacker averaged 1.7 missed tackles per game during his 46 starts. Also, a drop in play can be seen over his last 18 games, per PFF: 

Pro Football Focus @PFF

Kwon Alexander is trading Tampa Bay for the Bay Area – agreeing to a massive deal with the San Francisco 49ers. His player profile goes into all his career statistics from his time with the Bucs: https://t.co/vq9QHUXRfc https://t.co/4s0F7N47ec

The fact that Alexander only played a full 16-game slate once factors into the equation. Last season, he suffered a torn ACL in Week 7 against the Cleveland Browns and continues to recover from the injury. 

So, the 49ers made an aggressive move to sign an average linebacker coming off season-ending surgery to rectify previous mistakes at the position. Alexander's eventual addition serves as a microcosm of deeper-rooted problems. 

Since taking over as general manager with no previous front office experience, Lynch signed Malcolm Smith to a five-year deal with $11.5 million guaranteed. Smith tore a pectoral muscle before the 2017 season and didn't play. He started five games last season. The front office executive used a fourth-round pick to trade back into the first round of the '17 draft and acquire Reuben Foster, who is no longer on the team after multiple off-field incidents.

San Francisco's talent acquisition, as a whole, since Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan became the brain trust, can be described as scattershot at best. 

The duo took over the organization and attacked free agency with reckless abandon. The 49ers made a big splash two years ago. Wide receiver Marquise Goodwin, fullback Kyle Juszczyk and kicker Robbie Gould worked out in the team's favor. Smith, quarterback Brian Hoyer and wide receiver Pierre Garcon did not. In fact, Smith agreed to a significant pay cut last week in fear of being released, according to The Athletic's Matt Barrows

Cornerback Richard Sherman, center Weston Richburg and running back Jerick McKinnon turned into a promising second free-agent class after acquiring quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo at the '17 trade deadline. The 49ers then made Garoppolo the NFL's highest-paid quarterback (at the time) after he started five games. Unfortunately, McKinnon and Garoppolo endured season-ending setbacks. 

San Francisco throws money at problems, and the approach hasn't paid dividends. According to For The Win's Steven Ruiz, the 49ers are among the league's worst in VAMP (value above market price). Basically, Ruiz designed the statistic to reflect a team's spending efficiency. The 49ers squad didn't receive play commensurate with last year's payouts. A 4-12 record is a direct reflection of poor financial decisions. 

As part of the Ford trade, the 49ers negotiated a five-year, $87.5 million contract with the edge-rusher, per ESPN.com's Josina Anderson. A team can never have too many pass-rushers, and Ford led the NFL last season with 84 total pressures, per Pro Football Focus. But his inclusion is a redundancy based on the talent already on the roster and the fact that San Francisco owns the second overall pick, which could turn into one of the draft's top defenders (Ohio State's Nick Bosa, Alabama's Quinnen Williams or Kentucky's Josh Allen). 

The 49ers' defensive front already featured three recent first-round picks. They've made an immense investment in one position group. As good as Ford is as a pass-rusher, he's poor at setting the edge against the run. 

"Last year, at the point of attack, I wasn't very strong—sometimes, they could knock me off my path," Ford told Yahoo Sports' Terez Paylor after he revealed he now weighs 245 pounds. "Now, I'm gonna be like a Ferrari, but with an 18-wheeler's force. I'm gonna have the muscle mass behind it."

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Lynch's first two draft classes had their share of hits and misses as well. The '17 first round could very well be a major bust after the team moved on from Foster and didn't maximize Solomon Thomas' potential. Tight end George Kittle's emergence helped save the disappointing group. The '18 class looks far more promising with right tackle Mike McGlinchey, wide receiver Dante Pettis and linebacker Fred Warner. 

Now in the third year of the regime, the 49ers aren't significantly better than when they started. They're stuck in a division with the NFC champion Los Angeles Rams and another playoff contender in the Seattle Seahawks

This is the same franchise that wanted to double-down on a non-premium position. 

San Francisco was one of the teams "potentially in the market" for Le'Veon Bell before the running back agreed to terms with the New York Jets, according to ESPN's Chris Mortensen (via Rotoworld's Evan Silva). McKinnon signed the league's sixth-richest running back contract ($30 million in total value) a year ago. As with Alexander, the organization was thinking of making up for past mistakes with the Bell flirtation.  

Money talks in the NFL, and it's saying the 49ers are directionless under Lynch's guidance. 

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @brentsobleski.